Which Mobile OS Is Best for You?

Most people don’t think twice about the operating system that’s going to power their new PC — their minds have already been wired for Windows, Mac OS X or Linux. Similarly, most people don’t think twice about which operating system will power their new smart phone or other mobile device.

But that can be a big mistake because the underlying software has major impact on how you use your mobile device. For example, a look at the Linux-powered Nokia N800 Internet tablet shows just how an operating system can have strong advantages and shortcomings.

This Internet tablet runs customized Linux software, Maemo, which has been developed from the Debian and Gnome technologies. Out of the box, the unit can browse the Internet, read RSS feeds, send and receive e-mail, play music and videos, and make Internet phone calls using Google Talk. It also can transmit live video during phone calls via a built-in camera. Internet connection can be established via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth or by using a broadband-capable cell phone as a modem.

However, while the N800 might initially seem to be feature-rich, you can’t take photos or capture videos with the built-in camera because imaging software isn’t included with the device. The same applies to personal information management — calendar, notes and document-viewing applications are missing from the product. Such omissions may seem like quite a drawback for a product like the N800.

Because the device is based on open-source software, you can find and install those capabilities for free. Yet, this type of flexibility isn’t for everybody — many people will find it easier and more satisfying to buy devices based on other, less-open platforms such as the Symbian OS and Windows Mobile.

Let’s look at how the Linux platform as deployed on the N800 compares in functionality with the Symbian OS and Windows Mobile.

Customizing the N800

For the N800 users, the place to start shoring up the device is the maemo.org Web site. The site hosts downloadable applications that open-source developers have made available for free.

For instance, readily available are a digital camera/video capture application, a multimedia player, calendar, spreadsheet, office document viewers, instant messaging, games and many other applications. It takes a single click (and a few security confirmations) to download and install a new application to the N800.

Smart phones built on Linux are available from many vendors, including Motorola, NEC, Panasonic and Samsung. Practically all current products are targeted at Asian markets, but the situation is changing. Apple has said that its iPhone will run on OS X, which is derived from Unix software. Palm is switching from Palm OS to Linux later this year.

The practice of building up a system configuration from freely available software components is nothing new for Linux desktop and server software users, who tend to be power users. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that an average Joe would pay for a product knowing that he would have to find, download and install an imaging application on the device before he could take photos with the camera.

While Maemo is used as the model of the open Linux culture, Windows Mobile and Symbian OS as major competitors of Linux have completely different origins and objectives. Both operating systems are licensed as traditional software products, both provide tools for programmers to create applications, and both are controlled by commercial enterprises.

Windows Mobile

Practically everyone who has used a desktop computer has used some Windows software. Yet, that knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate to Windows Mobile, which is a separate piece of Microsoft software designed for smart phones and PDAs. Lately, devices like the Motorola Q and Samsung Blackjack have made the smart phone edition familiar to business people and consumers.

When you take a Windows Mobile smart phone or PDA out of the box and charge it, you are ready to roll. You can make phone calls right away. If you purchased the device from a carrier, messaging and Web access settings are already in place for sending e-mail and for browsing the Web.

Everything you need for managing your schedule, contacts, notes, to-do lists and messages is installed in the device. If you want to synchronize information with a desktop PC, you simply plug in a cable between the devices and use ActiveSync (on Windows XP) or Windows Mobile Device Center (on Windows Vista) to update the information.

Multimedia is another area in which integration between a Windows Mobile device and a PC works well. Streaming and downloading video or audio to a Windows Mobile device from the Internet doesn’t require any additional software or settings. Windows Mobile can also play WMA and WMV formats, which are commonly used by media companies.

In contrast to Linux, Windows Mobile comes as ready-to-run software. You can enhance the software by downloading additional — typically commercial — software into the device, but you can’t (or you don’t have to) tweak the underlying operating system.

Symbian OS

Symbian is owned by a consortium of cell phone manufacturers that has specifically targeted the platform for smart phones. Products running on the Symbian OS include the upcoming Motorola MOTORIZR Z8, Nokia E- and N-series products, and the Sony Ericsson P800 and P900 series devices. Interestingly, Symbian is, by far, the most widely used platform for smart phones worldwide, although it has yet to catch on in the U.S. despite the availability of some nice devices like the Nokia E62.

Like Windows Mobile devices, a Symbian-based device is ready for action as soon as it comes out of the box. Telephone, messaging and Internet access features are the key virtues in most Symbian OS devices. Typically, these features have been tightly integrated with relevant applications in the user interface software.

Symbian OS provides three alternative user interfaces while Windows Mobile keeps the choices to one. The user interface — UIQ, S60 or MOAP — is customized by the device manufacturer. The user can modify the system graphics, colors and sounds but can’t touch the underlying software.

Contacts, calendar, notes, calculator and other applications for managing personal information are included with the user interface software. As with Windows Mobile devices, synchronizing personal information with a PC via cable or Bluetooth is also possible.

The integration of multimedia capabilities in Symbian OS/S60, however, has room for improvement. There’s nothing wrong with individual components that let you view videos or listen to music, but the lack of integration between the media player and other applications can be painful when trying to stream video or music from the Internet.

Which Platform to Choose

Symbian OS and Windows Mobile have their competitive advantages. The former has strong telephone, messaging and browser integration, while the latter comes with stronger sync and media streaming capabilities. Both operating systems allow enhancing the functionality by downloading additional software, typically at a price. However, the underlying premise is the same: What you see is what you get. By contrast, Linux devices tend to be more bare-bones out of the box, but you can customize and upgrade easily and, typically, for free.

It all comes down to user needs and skills. If you are a tech-savvy person who enjoys spending extra time with new electronic devices, examining their options, looking for support from the Internet and customizing features, you are a strong candidate for a Linux device. If you would rather walk the dog in a freezing rain than configure software for a new device, a ready-to-run product built on an established operating system software is your choice.

However, while that’s the scorecard today, the technology communities aren’t sitting still. Palm has announced its intention to migrate its Palm OS-based software assets to Linux. Apple is about to launch iPhone, which will run on OS X, a Unix-based software. Both companies have a track record of delighting customers with easy-to-use products that work out of the box without any extra work.

If vendors such as those can leverage the ability to customize Linux devices with the ease of setup found with Symbian OS and Windows Mobile devices, Linux could easily catch on — big time — as a mainstream mobile platform.

A more than 20-year consulting and marketing career has taken Ari Hakkarainen across the world in high-tech business. In addition to having authored a book about smart phones, he is the mobile expert at Avec Mobile.

By Ari Hakkarainen